In 1852, a beautiful seventeen-year-old girl from an important but impoverished family of the Yehonala clan arrived in Peking as a minor concubine to the young Emperor, Hsien Feng. Tzu Hsi, known as Orchid as a girl, was one among hundreds of concubines whose sole purpose was to bear the Emperor a son.
It was not a good time to enter the Forbidden City, a vast complex of palaces and gardens run by thousands of eunuchs and encircled by a wall in the center of Peking. The Ch’ing Dynasty was losing its vitality and the court had become an insular, xenophobic place. A few decades earlier, China had lost the first Opium War, and it had done little since to strengthen its defenses or improve its diplomatic ties to other nations.
Within the walls of the Forbidden City the consequences of a misstep were often deadly. As one of hundreds of women vying for the attention of the Emperor, Orchid discovered that she must take matters into her own hands. After training herself in the art of pleasing a man, she risked everything by bribing her way into the royal bedchamber and seducing the monarch. Hsien Feng was a troubled man, but for a time their love was passionate and genuine, and soon she had the great fortune to bear him his only son and heir. Elevated to the rank of Empress, Orchid still had to struggle to maintain her position as the Emperor took new lovers. The right to raise her own child, who was under the control of Empress Nuharoo, the Emperor’s senior wife, was constantly at issue.
The invasion by Britain, France, and Russia in 1860, and the subsequent occupation of Peking, forced the Chinese court into exile in the distant hunting reserve of Jehol, beyond the Great Wall. There the humiliating news of the harsh terms for peace contributed to the decline of the Emperor’s health. With the death of Hsien Feng came a palace coup, which Orchid helped to foil with the help of her brother-in-law Prince Kung and General Yung Lu. The handsome Yung Lu reignited romantic feelings in the still young Orchid, but in her new position of power there was little opportunity for a personal life. As coregent with Empress Nuharoo until her son’s maturity, Empress Orchid was at the beginning of a long and tumultuous reign that would last into the next century.
Mother’s eyes were closed when she died. But a moment later they cracked open and remained open.
“Your Majesty, please hold the eyelids and try your best to close them,” Doctor Sun Pao-tien instructed.
My hands trembled as I tried.
Rong, my sister, said that Mother meant to close her eyes. She had waited for me for too long. Mother did not want to interrupt my audience.
“Try not to trouble people” was Mother’s philosophy. She would have been disappointed to know that she needed help to close her eyes. I wished that I could disregard Nuharoo’s order and bring my son to bid a final goodbye. “It shouldn’t matter that Tung Chih is the Emperor of China,” I would have argued. “He is my mother’s grandson first.” I turned to my brother, Kuei Hsiang, and asked if Mother had left any words for me.
“Yes.” Kuei Hsiang nodded, stepping back to stand on the other side of Mother’s bed. “ ‘All is well.’ “ My tears came.
“What kind of burial ceremony do you have in mind for Mother?” Rong asked.
“I can’t think right now,” I replied. “We will discuss it later.” “No, Orchid,” Rong protested. “It will be impossible to reach you once you leave here. I would like to know your intentions. Mother deserves the same honor as Grand Empress Lady Jin.” “I wish that I could simply say yes, but I can’t. Rong, we are watched by millions. We must set an example.” “Orchid,” Rong burst out, “you are the ruler of China!” “Rong, please. I believe Mother would understand.” “No, she wouldn’t, because I can’t. You are a terrible daughter, selfish and heartless!” “Excuse me,” Doctor Sun Pao-tien interrupted. “Your Majesty, may I have you concentrate on your fingers? Your mother’s eyes will remain forever open if you stop pressing.” “Yes, Doctor.” “Harder, and steady,” the doctor instructed. “Now hold it. You are almost there. Don’t move.” My sister helped to hold my arms.
Mother’s face in repose was deep and distant.
“It’s Orchid, Mother,” I whispered, weeping.
I couldn’t believe she was dead. My fingers caressed her smooth and still-warm skin. I had missed touching her. Ever since I had entered the Forbidden City, Mother was forced to get down on her knees to greet me when she visited. She insisted on following the etiquette. “It is the respect you deserve as the Empress of China,” she said.
We rarely had privacy. Eunuchs and ladies in waiting surrounded me constantly. I douubted Mother could hear me from where she had to sit, ten feet away from me. It didn’t seem to bother her, though. She pretended that she could hear. She would aaaaanswer questions I hadn’t asked.
“Gently, release the eyelids,” Doctor Sun Pao-tien said.
Mother’s eyes remained closed. Her wrinkles seemed to have disappeared, and her expression was restful.
I am the mountain behind you. Mother’s voice came to my mind:
Like a singing river You break out to flow freely.
Happily I watch you, The memory of us Full and sweet.
I had to be strong for my son. Although Tung Chih, who was seven, had been Emperor for two years, since ascending the throne in 1861, his regime had been chaotic. Foreign powers continued to gain leverage in China, especially in the coastal ports; at home, peasant rebels called Taipings had spread through the interior and overrun province after province. I had struggled to find a way to raise Tung Chih properly. Yet he seemed to be so terribly shattered by his father’s early death. I could only wish to raise him the way my parents had raised me.
“I am a lucky woman,” Mother used to say. I believed her when she said that she had no regrets in life. She had achieved a dream: two daughters married into royal families and a son who was a high-ranking Imperial minister. “We were practically beggars back in 1852,” Mother often reminded her children. “I will never forget that afternoon at the Grand Canal when the footmen deserted your father’s coffin.” The heat of that day and the smell of rot that came from my father’s corpse stayed with me as well. The expression on Mother’s face when she was forced to sell her last possession, a jade hairpin that was a wedding gift from our father, was the saddest I had ever seen.
As Emperor Hsien Feng’s senior wife, Empress Nuharoo attended my mother’s funeral. It was considered a great honor for my family. As a devout Buddhist, Nuharoo disregarded tradition in accepting my invitation.
Dressed in white silk like a tall ice-tree, Nuharoo was the picture of grace. I walked behind her, careful not to step on the long train of her robe. Chanting Tibetan lamas and Taoist and Buddhist priests followed us. Making our way through the Forbidden City, we stopped to perform one ritual after another, passing through gate after gate and hall after hall.
Standing next to Nuharoo, I marveled that we had finally found some measure of harmony. The differences between us had been clear from the moment we entered the Forbidden City as young girls. She —